Spektral Quartet brings a strong, modernist wind from Chicago

Sat Apr 22, 2017 at 1:15 pm
The Spektral Quartet performed Friday night at National Sawdust.

The Spektral Quartet performed Friday night at National Sawdust.

The Windy City is known for high buildings and broad shoulders, and there was plenty of altitude and attitude in Friday night’s program by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

The altitude was called for by a quartet of Chicago-born or -based composers, who sent the four string players—particularly first violinist Clara Lyon– repeatedly to the north end of their fingerboards for notes and whole passages that were almost in the dogs-only range.

They often got there by means of slides that, for panache and accuracy, might be envied by the world-champion Cubs.

That’s where the attitude comes in. Throughout the program’s intense hour and a quarter, the composers demanded, and the Spektral players delivered, a flurry of radical string-playing techniques that put a charge under every bar, whether the mood was whimsical or ferocious.

Even electro-pop artist Arthur Russell’s charming track “I’m Hiding Your Present from You” (from his 1986 album World of Echo) was all edges and sharp corners in Katherine Young’s arrangement for string quartet. Its persistent rising figure and droning fifths—courtesy of violinists Lyon and Maeve Feinberg—made it sound like a hard-driving, 21st-century hoedown.

At one point cellist Russell Rolen drummed the strings with fingertips near the bridge, making his instrument imitate a didgeridoo. Violist Doyle Armbrust responded with otherworldly sounds of his own. Young’s arrangement, it turned out, was just the right special-effects appetizer for a program of bold new string music, all of it composed within the past two years.

The boldest moments came in George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, which the Chicago-born trombonist, composer, Columbia University professor, and former MacArthur Fellow put his African-American cards on the table in service of “the volatility of memory, resistance and hope,” as he put it in a program note.

The piece’s title, slyly alluding to an earlier work for quartet (with percussion) that Professor Lewis didn’t consider a “proper string quartet,” also included a quotation from the philosopher John Stuart Mill. But there was nothing dry or academic about the music itself.

A first-time listener might not follow all the compositional processes in this atonal work, but there was no question that the “memory” was of something violent, and the “resistance” was born of rage. In the opening bars, the first violin emitted stark squeals and shouts over an indifferent haze of sound from the other instruments. Harsh tremolos, smeared glissando chords, and explosive snap pizzicatos drove the music forward. At one point the two violinists produced chopsticks from their hairdos (an option not available to the clean-cut male violist and cellist) and tapped the strings in a rattling col legno effect suggestive of dice or bone auguries.

The piece reached a turning point in the middle, settling down and marching softly to a rhythm tapped out on the cello. The music grew from chirps and flute-like tones to an improvised-sounding fortissimo of full-fingerboard, up-and-down slides in all instruments—a trombonist’s idea of a string quartet, perhaps—before ending with one last bitten-off assertion. Whoops from the audience greeted the players and the composer as they took their bows.

A quieter kind of “experiment” followed in Samuel Adams’s Quartet Movement for string quartet and three snare drums, composed last year amid the press of Adams’s duties as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The drums lay on their sides on the stage and were activated electronically by small loudspeakers, producing a variety of ambient sounds—a surf-like throb, an undulating haze, an astringent hiss—for the piece’s six brief sections.

Each section began with the same down-up violin phrase, then went on to explore acoustical effects, such as notes going slowly in and out of unison to produce shimmering “beats,” and rhythmic suggestions, culminating in an active, finale-like closing section and a fadeout for the drums alone. The quartet brought the same fierce concentration and attention to detail to this gentle piece as it had to the dramatics of the Lewis work.

That set the stage for some serious fun in Anthony Cheung’s playfully-titled The Real Book of Fake Tunes, an allusion to the “fake books” and lead sheets that have been the jazz player’s friend for generations. The piece featured the talents of flutist Claire Chase–Brooklynite, new-music specialist, and the second MacArthur Fellow to appear on this program–who both inspired the piece and joined the quartet onstage Friday.

Composer Cheung, who has a doctorate from Columbia and teaches at the University of Chicago, cheerfully acknowledged in a program note that his piece didn’t contain much in the way of “tunes.” But the influence of jazz could be detected in each of its five movements, from the swoopy strings under the stratospheric piccolo and violin phrases of the opening bars to the graceful swing and sway of the movement that followed.

Chase’s flute played various roles in the course of the work, sometimes bold and virtuosic on top of the texture, sometimes sliding under the covers with Armbrust’s viola in the middle. The movements ranged in mood from bluesy languor to chattery recitative to long chords pocked with loud pizzicato, and the last one brought the program to a suitably brilliant close, stomping and sliding to a syncopated beat.

Composers Lewis, Adams, and Cheung were on hand to acknowledge the applause for each of their works, and joined the players onstage at evening’s end for one more bow. The Spektral Quartet had brought most or all of the music to birth, either by direct commission itself (the Adams piece and Young’s arrangement) or by seeking a commission though the Fromm Music Foundation (Lewis and Cheung).

The image of three composers and five players taking a bow served to remind the onlooker that, ideally, new “classical” music is not just a matter of imaginatively realizing the composer’s intentions—although the Spektral Quartet and guest Chase certainly did that—but of being present at the creation, and a vital part of it.

Upcoming music events at National Sawdust include a Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert of The Canales Project, 7 p.m. Saturday (sold out) and Table Music Sunday Brunch with New Vintage Baroque, 12 p.m. Sunday. nationalsawdust.org; 646-779-8455.


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